TODAY   |  January 31, 2013

Senator’s private plane trips prompt ethics probe

Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen’s trips to the Dominican Republic with Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey have prompted an ethics complaint, resulting in federal agents searching his office Tuesday and Wednesday, hauling away boxes of material. NBC’s Pete Williams reports.

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>> federal agents are culling through dozens of boxes from a from nent florida eye doctor and now scrutiny falling on a top ranking democratic senator. justice correspondent pete williams has the story. good morning.

>> good morning. federal officials are declining to say exactly what's behind the search but the doctor is well-known is south florida . he's been an active political contributor and friend of senator robert menendez , the subject of an ethics complaint.

>> reporter: in florida , federal agents hauled away boxes of material tuesday night and witnessed from the office of a west palm beach eye doctor . he and members of his family are big political contributors. records show they've given more than $33,000 in the past 15 years to u.s. senator robert men menendez .

>> this hearing of the senate foreign relations committee --

>> reporter: he just took over as chairman of the senate florida relations committee. they appeared at a gala chaired by milgen. the senate ethics committee has received a complaint from a new jersey republican official who complained menendez got rides on a private plane to the dominican republic and elsewhere without disclosing them.

>> senator went on flights to dominican republic and flights to puerto rico , et cetera from this doctor down in florida on his private jet , which he had failed to report.

>> reporter: in a statement, saturday menendez called the doctor a friend and political supporter many years and took three trips on that plane but paid for and reported them properly. but his staff said he wrote a check two weeks ago three weeks after the ethics complaint was made to reimburse the doctor $58,000 for two trips in 2010 and the senator refers to a series of claims made on conservative websites saying he met with prostitutes while in the dominican republic . those allegations, they say are manufactured, politically motivated and false, based on a series of anonymous e-mails that first surfaced last april sent to a political watchdog group in washington called crew. but when the tipster repeatedly declined to talk on the phone or agree to a meeting, the group turned the messages to the fbi.

>> it turns out he has no real interest coming forward and making sure this matter can be investigated as a law enforcement issue. it seems he's much more interested seeing it brought to light as a big scandal.

>> reporter: as for the search in florida , federal officials say agents from the department of human services were involved meaning they may be looking into allegations of health care fraud.